La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
AMANDA BOETZKES / Staying with the Trauma: On the Trouble of Science-Fetishism, Predictive Coding, and Semiocide

AMANDA BOETZKES / Staying with the Trauma: On the Trouble of Science-Fetishism, Predictive Coding, and Semiocide

Donna Haraway’s case for staying with the trouble is upheld by an ethos of scientific and literary care. The “trouble,” as such, is both a consciousness and a praxis—a way of thinking in acknowledgment of environmental catastrophe and an imperative to trouble thinking itself.  Yet this ethos, by which Haraway locates a common creativity across the scientific and the fictional, is nevertheless not generalizable as a knowledge-praxis. The strength and the danger of Haraway’s call to stir up trouble is that the stirring itself, in its affirmation of a certain science-fictivity or scientific-fiction, displaces imperatives to learn, consult, forge relationships, hear voices and strengthen the political force of existingpersisting and forceful forms of knowledge that, I would argue, are central to reorienting the focus of the arts and humanities towards environmental justice and its inimicability with science per se (its history and contemporary corporatization). 

For example, in 2005, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council from 1995-2002, wrote the powerful exegesis “The Right to Be Cold” as a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The petition alleged that the U.S. was committing a human rights violation against Inuit residents of the Arctic due to the impact of its greenhouse gas emissions. It was a call to responsibility, addressed to the United States government, but importantly, also requiring acknowledgment from its human rights commission. A year later, the ICC was notified that the commission had rejected the petition because it failed to meet the basic requirements of admissibility: it simply could “not be processed at present”.[1]  The Right to Be Cold convenes a set of intertwined relations, knowledge, history and environment and connects these to the global predicament of climate change in order to make its case as a human rights violation.[2] It not only troubles a knowledge-complex, it directs this troubled knowledge toward international legal accountability. No matter how accurate, how epistemologically refined, or how dire the petition, it simply did not register as admissible to a completely insensible organization. Given the trouble everyone is in, one wonders what sensibility would register. Further, given the absolute refusal and negligence of the U.S. government, how would the ICC respond to a group of knowledge producers/creators who approach them and ask if they could be oddkin

Environmental justice may be impossible unless the pursuit of knowledge practices, and their use of language, wonder, fiction and speculation disjoins itself from the authority of science and its assumed efficacy. This is not a statement that science should be disregarded – quite the contrary. Rather it is a statement about the relationship between knowledge and language, the coding of language in questions of justice, and the inefficacy of science (real or fictive) to bring such justice about. The scientific facts regarding climate change, for example, are indisputable. But the question of actionability through collective organization and in response to the facts is a sticking point for institutions, governments, corporations, scholars and creators. Indeed, it would be naïve to think that these organizations of mindfulness are not, in fact, a totalizing knowledge-production machine that is applying itself through discursive codes that flatten cultures, beings, land and even time itself.   

The discursive crafting of science is, both historically and currently, a mechanism of colonial trauma. Science and literature were never, and are still not, separate from the European settler episteme, whether its economy, organizations of beings, pedagogy, or importantly, its very language. We might consider David Graeber and David Wengrow’s recent account of the conservatism of Enlightenment values and principles, which position it as a European backlash against Indigenous thinkers who were critiquing their worldview.[3] It is therefore important to weigh the call to make trouble in both its similarities and differences from forms of discursive trickery and overcoding that might indicate a white flight from the sites of trauma, timeplaces that are netted to a damaging science-based knowledge machine. Haraway’s trouble seeks to rectify such capitalist-colonial damage, to seek renewal from the wreckage. But the playful sensibility may be a Trojan-horse – a Science-Fantasy that points to the shock of an original geotrauma at the heart of a science-based sensibility.

Otherwise put, unless we mind her playful scientific-fictivity somewhat differently, Haraway’s exuberant speech acts may, however inadvertently, entrench the traumatic blanketing of existing knowledge and praxes in the name of science at the expense of new possibilities of environmental justice being forged through Indigenous epistemology and political activism. Staying with the Troublelocates a fork in the road between creative freedom (as integral to and empowered by scientific knowing), while diverting away from the forms of knowledge and creativity that are being put toward environmental justice as a right to live and matter in and through diverse knowledges. I therefore seek to trouble Haraway’s trouble in an effort to cultivate a sensibility that sits at odds with Science Fetishism (another SF that could be added to Haraway’s list).  I pose the question, how might people—especially those scholars, scientists and artists—who are benefitting from and nourishing diverse forms of knowledge that span knowing, creating, being, and land become sensitized to the risks of Science Fetishism with its resulting Science Fantasies that are part and parcel of misguided predictive-coding and semiocide? 

The Trouble with Science Fetishism

At the heart of Haraway’s courageous call to trouble is a love of other species, in all their “stringy” differences. It is a love that preserves, appreciates and celebrates difference as the basic condition of biological thriving. The symbiosis between different species, and to a certain extent, difference itself, is both the subject matter and the form of Haraway’s call to inquiry and call to action. But by invoking the Chthonic ones, taking a fictional figure and re-coding it for the purposes of a new SF (a new science fiction, science fact, speculative fiction, speculative feminism etc.) Haraway engages another SF: a Science-Fetishism, a schema of knowledge creation that powerfully commands attention in such a way as to obscure its (quiet) operation of eclipsing other knowledges while thematizing difference through monstrosity.   

My concern regarding Science Fetishism, which I would like to suggest has different forms depending on the science (biofetishism, geofetishism, cryofetishism etc.) is meant to point toward the fundamental jointure between science and colonial capitalism. Haraway acknowledges the primacy of economic exploitation in her own exegesis on the Anthropocene-Capitalocene-Chthulucene triad. But the efforts to wage a feminist and intersectional critique through companionship with the Chthonic ones unearths a more troubling trouble: that the scientific lens (no matter how feminist and intersectional) is nevertheless rooted in a totalizing epistemic force that is geared toward the production of knowledge commodities that are patented, profited from and exchanged in order to found new forms of geopower. The science research machine is expanding in the service of transnational corporate alliances that forge a recursive chain of production between scientific knowledge, energy resources and communication technologies, many of which are either geared toward or facilitated by military surveillance. 

By invoking the notion of the fetish, I am recalling Marx’s account of the commodity – an object with an exterior appearance that conceals the labour that originally produced it. But I am also implicating science commodities with the Freudian positioning of a fetish as an object of sexual fantasy that alleviates castration anxiety. Science Fetishism is, I would suggest, a knowledge commodity that obscures the conditions of its production and is a libidinally-charged object of desire that soothes the subject. Is Haraway’s SF a Science Fantasy that is contiguous with Science-Fetishism? We must consider this possibility.

The trouble with Haraway’s trouble may be that its procedure of fabulation is a symptom of post-traumatic stress that has been put to work in the service of a corrupt knowledge machine. Who would not (who does not?) conjure creaturely figures to fight against the powers that be, against the consciousness that produced mass extinction? But what powers are these; to whom do they belong? The heroism of tentacular thought comes in its refusal of naïve technofixes, and its cut from the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene. Haraway convenes her words in an unconventional, and undisputed now (as distinct from the apocalyptic future predestined by such epochs). But notice that the cause of “the trouble” remains strikingly unarticulated. As though to name it would in fact call forth an unbearable scale of responsibility for which there is no knowledge or action. 

Haraway’s response-ability—itself the crux of making trouble—begins as an effort to “settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places”[4]. As her call unfolds through stringy reflection, figuration and relation, the origin of the trouble recedes and a new factical-fictional world opens. Yet the fabulation of the Chthulucene as a critical manoeuvre also discovers the purposiveness of trauma-based hallucination: to protect the subject from the original perturbation that upsets its self-concept. Trauma is a catastrophe of the subject; the hallucination shelters the subject from knowing its own disintegration. In other words, Haraway’s fabulous epoch also points to a trauma. It is both the outcome and the defense against it. Is Haraway’s SF (Science Fantasy) protecting her from a trauma induced by the scientific episteme? Does science therefore remain irresponsible in the face of the epistemological traumas it has inflicted, precisely because of her SF? For the traction earned by Haraway’s treatise is experienced mainly in the arts and humanities, not the life sciences.

Predictive Coding and the Trauma of Science-Fantasy 

Even before the publication of Staying with the Trouble, Donna Haraway was a heroine of the art-world. A pivotal force that has led STS (Science and Technology Studies) to be a primarily feminist-based domain of inquiry, Haraway’s stringy extensions into and uses of creative and political writing have been met by a surge of bio-artists and art-labs across North America and Europe, all of which continue to thrive on the lines of thought opened by her trailblazing interdisciplinary thinking. 

At North American universities, Indigenous Studies have not been supported nearly as well as STS or artistic research, though there have been signs of institutional uptake since the imperatives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and certainly more gestures of allyship with Indigenous communities coming from existing disciplines (the Sciences, Social Sciences, the Arts and Humanities). These shifts can be attributed in part to progressive changes in the foci of granting agencies and, perhaps in a small but nevertheless important part, due to allegiances forming between scholars, artists and anti-pipeline, anti-nuclear and other climate-change activists. A growing acknowledgement of the direct causal connection between the global oil industry and climate change has fostered such transformations in research cultures. But academic funding and criteria of judgment are still science-dominant, not coincidentally. Meanwhile, science departments are subject to the corporatization of their research, with little time or incentive to prevent this. 

How then to interpret the SF at play in Haraway’s Chthulucene? As I suggest, SF is a fabulation that protects the coherence of the subject’s self-concept, but it also gestures to a rupture at its core.  This rupture is not disciplinary, not epistemological, but fundamental to the emergence of science itself. It is a break that is not known because to know it would induce a complete unraveling of any possibility of knowing. It leads to the subject’s autoannihilation. Haraway requires of us a reading of her fantasy in such a way as to preserve her against a psychotic break from her scientific cornerstone, while taking up the challenge to know completely differently from the science fiction we all find so engaging. 

The rupture, what I would argue is the very trouble, is the traumatic form at the basis of any account of environmental disasters that, thanks to the life sciences, we can clearly see are taking place at a planetary scale. How can one not respond by dissociation, hallucination, fantasy, and a rush to claim the future when faced with this world-picture? The cascade from planetary catastrophe, to trauma, to fantasy is so rapid, it is easy to be gripped by science-fictivity. Such literary flourishes and the thriving of science-art research-creation in the wake of Haraway’s SF, might therefore be seen as forms of cruel optimism, in Lauren Berlant’s sense – an affectation of consciousness that inadvertently binds us to the traumatic logic of capitalism that induced the affect in the first place.[5]  (I might note here the difficulty of registering the spatio-temporal perspective at work in the Seven Generations Principle of sustainability that governs Treaty 13 territory where I live as I try to reconcile this with the fictive epoch of the Chthulucene. Does the latter occlude the former in its exuberant expressivity? Literary flourish over Indigenous knowledge?). 

In the post-truth era, when it is not so much the scientific facts but their underlying belief systems, political value and deployment as research practice that are of crucial importance, it is useful to consider how trauma causes hallucinations that exert misguided forms of “predictive coding”.[6] In neurology, predictive coding is the brain’s function of producing and continually adjusting a mental model of the environment. When someone experiences a trauma, their nervous system will consolidate a strong model of the environment in order to prevent the trauma from recurring. Thereafter, when the nervous system is stressed, the brain privileges speed over accuracy as it anticipates environmental change. A subject with PTSD may demonstrate forms of predictive coding that are rooted in the beliefs forged by the trauma, resulting in an inaccurate but nevertheless “overly precise” coding of the environment that is ultimately a hallucination. In other words, trauma can entrench an inaccurate but strong prior belief about the environment and hallucination is effected by the discrepancy between the trauma-based predictive coding and the environmental situation that is actually confronting the subject. 

So now, one might wonder, is Haraway’s assessment of the Chthulucene a trauma-based hallucination? Does the corresponding surge of science-fantasy and science-fetishism in the arts and humanities indicate strong but inaccurate beliefs at the heart of scientific representations of the planetary condition? More importantly, does Haraway’s SF point toward a history of irresponsible science, rather than its response-capability. For it is entirely possible that the promise of a future of odd relations between living beings displaces existing ones that have been violated and pressured since the Enlightenment. In its diversion from its own traumatic cannibalization of beings and their relations as a form of knowledge, SF may indeed foreclose necessary adaptations to the unprecedented environmental emergencies that make their appearance in the scientific perspective itself. SF must therefore be self-reflective in such a way as to include and not eclipse knowledge and to divest the harmful relations that induced its mode of fabulation. Might SF acknowledge its conditions of emergence; that as a phenomenon of reterritorialization of knowledge-action, it is also a Self-Fabulation that risks replicating the trauma at its origin?

Lively Arts for Deadly Thoughts 

I am not suggesting that word-play and fictioning in general is somehow environmentally irresponsible or negligent. I am suggesting that as an epistemological modality, Haraway’s SF, a discursive circling that extends itself across timeplace, is dissociated from its place in the contemporary reality in which acts of linguicide, semiocide, and ecocide are still exerting themselves on Indigenous lands under the guise of science. For this suggestion is the very possibility that Haraway’s SF opens up if we are to understand it as a trauma-based Science Fantasy with its origins in Science Fetishism. I am also suggesting that scientists, artists, and thinkers become mindful of the insensibility playing out through creative flourishes that conjure fictional beings and read these against real beings and relations in an epoch of mass extinction. To call the creative basis of Science Fantasy an insensibility is not to air a moral repudiation of it, but rather to suggest its ecological basis: its unthought root in an epistemological form that produced the shared trauma of extinguished beings and relations.

Ivar Puura defines semiocide as “a situation in which signs and stories that are significant for someone are destroyed because of someone else’s malevolence or carelessness thereby stealing a part of the former’s identity.”[7] He links semiocide to the suppression of Indigenous languages and importantly, to the violence of colonization and displacement from land. Semiocide is a particular form of displacement and alienation of peoples from land and the relationships that sustain them. By this account, land is also a signscape, a site where knowledge as such is formed and sustained in culturally-specific ways. Importantly, the signscape is not merely a form of knowledge – this material semiosis rests at the axis of knowledge of living beings and their very ontological existence as such.

Fictions may be stringy and dynamic, plastic and protean. But extinction is permanent and unidirectional. SF are no more a corrective for the causes of extinction than a techno-fix. Nor do they reconcile with the truth of colonial trauma. Indeed, they may in fact be protecting settler epistemology from this very possibility. But it is not too late to learn the politics of signscaping as a ferocious battle between corporatized resource-sciences and Indigenous lands unfolding NOW in this very time, in thisgeneration. Kainos, a timeplace for learning and a timeplace for beginning: yes, of course. But with its roots in Greek philosophy, can this timeplace meet our generation with the recursions of time still unfolding in the seven generations of Indigenous pasts and futures? Sympoiesis: yes, of course. But might this also register against the backdrop of semiocidal signscaping?

In other words, in the othering of words, in the othering of Haraway’s words, in the othering of my own words from myself so that others might understand the violent affordances of words and the violence of corporatized scientific language: can her call for lively arts hold deadly thoughts? These lively arts would carry thoughts of the dead when they haunt us from our trauma-based fantasies. They would be thoughts of beings with names and relations in languages that may not be your own, histories that may not be yours and land and knowledge that do not belong to you and that in which you must learn to share. They might recognize that geotraumas are more likely to induce discursive repetitions than ecological renewal. They might call you to a sensitivity and a sensibility that shocks you out of your own SF. For such a shock is possible as we look out at the distorted horizon of the life sciences and of art. “Think we must, we must think.”

Amanda Boetzkes 

[1] Joanna Harrington, “Climate Change, Human Rights, and the Right to Be Cold,” Fordham Environmental Law Review. 18.3 2007: 514. 

[2] Sheila Watt Cloutier, The Right to Be Cold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2018. 

[3] David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, New York: McClelland & Stewart, 2021.

[4] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press) 2016: 1. 

[5] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press) 2011.

[6] Stanley Lyndon and Philip R. Corlett, “Hallucinations in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Insights from Predictive Coding,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 29) 2020: 534-543.

[7] Ivar Puura, “Nature in our Memory,” Sign Systems Studies 41.1 2013: 152.